By Kurt Wolff
Any list of the most enduring songs in country music history needs to include the work of Merle Haggard. And if you can only pick one song, it almost has to be “Okie from Muskogee.”
Written and recorded by the Country Music Hall of Fame member, “Okie” hit the airwaves in the politically charged year of 1969, when Nixon had just been elected, the Civil Rights Act was only five years old, hippies were pouring into San Francisco and the Vietnam War was in full swing. The song quickly became a No. 1 smash hit for Haggard — as did the album of the same name, which was recorded live in Muskogee, Oklahoma and appeared later that same year.
On March 25 of this year, the entire Okie from Muskogee album will get a full reissue in honor of its 45th anniversary. As a bonus, a second disc will feature another live Haggard album, The Fightin’ Side of Me, which was originally issued in 1970. See the full track listing for both discs below.
Was “Okie from Muskogee” a polarizing song? Absolutely. The lyrics baited hippies (“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” goes the famed opening line) and appealed immediately to conservatives and small-town Middle Americans (the so-called “silent majority”) who considered themselves the moral foundation of an increasingly divided nation.
So while the “hippies out in San Francisco” might “let their hair grow long and shaggy” (as Haggard sang), Muskogee represented “a place where even squares can have a ball.” And, of course, where “leather boots are still in style for manly footwear.”
“The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Haggard’s followup single, was another song that seemed tailor-made for conservatives — especially those fed up with war protests and draft dodgers. “If you don’t love it leave it, let this song that I’m singing be a warning,” Haggard sings, “If you’re running down my country, man, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of me.”
Toby Keith, as you might imagine, is a fan:
Besides those two landmark tracks, the double-album reissue includes live versions of many more Haggard classics, including “Swinging Doors,” the gentle ballad “Silver Wings,” the prison song “Sing Me Back Home,” blue-collar anthem “Workin’ Man’s Blues” and a song that brilliantly represents his troubled early life, “Mama Tried.” The Fightin’ Side album also veers into vintage country territory, including covers of songs by such Haggard heroes as Bob Wills, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Jimmie Rodgers.